Simplicity in online video games can be both a good thing and a bad thing.I play quite my fair share of online games. The majority of them have some sort of combative aspect, that is the human controlled characters are pitted against one another. Also, a common theme in these games is that there are different play styles.Be it that the game has a class system that changes gameplay drastically from one class to another, or gameplay changes slightly by using different mechanics by choice.
In Halo or Call of Duty you might have perks or different weapons, but everyone is for the most part the same soldier. It’s a simpler design in those games. That isn’t always a good thing.
A skill floor and skill ceiling is something mostly discussed in video games with many ways to play the game. In TF2 there are a dozen characters to play as, and they all play differently. In every MOBA game (League of Legends, DotA, Smite, Heroes of the Storm, etc…) you pick a champion, god, hero, or whatever that game decides to call the characters. A skill floor and a skill ceiling apply to each character, no matter what genre of game you play, so long as there are different play styles.
When I think of “simple” I think of these two aspects of games, and how making gameplay simple isn’t always a good thing. A skill floor describes the minimum level of skill needed to do well with a character. To have a high skill floor means that most players will play that character poorly, and you have to be particularly good at the game to stand to play mediocrely with them. So if this is true, why would anyone play a character with a high skill floor? Wouldn’t it make sense on the part of the game developers to make each character’s skill floor as low as possible?
The trade-off comes with the skill ceiling, which is arguably more important. A skill ceiling is the location of the barrier to performance. A low skill ceiling on a character means that the difference between “great” and “good” is negligible. For a truly skilled player to exert their skills and get the most out of it they want to choose the character with the highest skill ceiling. This is because choosing a low skill ceiling will make it so that even at your best you do about as well as someone worse than you. If you know you’re better than someone, you want to see that in the result of the gameplay. However, if you’re better than someone playing the same character, and that character has a low skill ceiling, you won’t see much of a gap between the two of you. Low skill ceilings are used to make novice players able to compete somewhat with more expert players.
How do skill floors and skill ceilings coexist? Well the trade-off of a high skill floor means you’ll almost always have a high skill ceiling. This is to suggest that if you’re good enough to do well with this character, you can improve yourself greatly. At the top of your game this character will limit you less than another character. The best example of this I can give is from Team Fortress 2’s Spy.
The spy in TF2 is a class centered around deception and maneuverability. His trademark is fooling the enemy team and becoming invisible to position himself accordingly. The trade-off of this character is that they have a relatively low health pool, which makes them easy to kill. So, the spy has a high skill floor. If you’re a mediocre player and try to play the spy, you might find yourself dying many times as the enemy exploits your low health to rid themselves of you quickly.
However, the spy’s advantage is that he is the only character with a built-in one-hit-kill. When the spy is directly behind an enemy player he can use his melee attack to stab them. A backstab is a one-hit kill on players that are not invulnerable to damage. This means that if a spy sneaks up on you without you realizing, you’re as good as dead. The ability of the spy to maneuver himself so that he can get these backstabs is one of the key aspects of playing this way. However, getting in position without getting killed is the challenge. This creates a very high skill ceiling.
Complexity and Illusion
The spy’s skill ceiling is so high, in fact, that truly expert players strike fear in the enemy like no other class does. The power of deception when used properly can decimate the enemy team and leave no trace. The best of players understand the psychology of the enemies and can use that in-game to their advantage. They are the trickster, fooling you, making you look left as they go right.
Though I’m not an expert player, a trick I favor uses the spy’s ability to turn invisible. It doesn’t happen in an instant, so if an enemy player witnesses you turn invisible they will take special note. If you’re running as you turn invisible it isn’t that difficult to predict where the spy will be. The character’s speed and how long they have been invisible for gives you a rough estimate of their location (assuming they keep moving in the same direction, or towards the same objective.) Poor spy players will keep moving in a straight line, after a second they’ll get hit by the enemy and due to their low health pool they die. They might even claim the enemy is cheating because they could see an invisible player. It’s true cheaters do exist online, but the more likely story is that even though you were invisible, you were predictable.
What I like to do, and it’s something I learned from watching much better players, is to change direction. If you know someone is watching you, turn invisible right in front of them, but as soon as you’re completely invisible then do a 180 and walk right past them. They will try to chase their mental image of where they think you are. And the further they chase that the further away from you they will get.
So what does this have to do with simplicity? Well a high skill floor and ceiling doesn’t typically come from a simple play style. The spy’s deception is not simple at all, the complexity of it is what makes it so difficult to utilize. To say that a character is simple isn’t inherently bad, either. Low skill floor characters need to exist for new players, otherwise the learning curve is terribly off putting and your player base will suffer. Simplicity exists to give people a starting point. Once they’re introduced to the game and they can spend time on it they can work up the ladder of skill. As their skill improves then they will keep hitting skill ceilings on the characters they play. If they want to keep improving they will probably change characters to the more complex ones.